Grantham's always-untitled paintings feature a cast of uneasy
May, Grantham and 20 years at Elizabeth Leach
The 20th Century officially ended on September 11.
The Western World arbitrarily thinks in centuries,
but the true Zeitgeist is definitely defined by events. So, just
as WWI ended Victorian idealism and replaced it with something
more complex, the rest of American culture (lead by the symbolically
over-secure baby boomers) has momentarily caught on to what a
lot of observant types have always known:
Simplistic worldviews and the insulating SUVs that
swept consciousness under the rug have hit a brick wall.
In fact, the information tools to forecast, model
and monitor the complex effects of our actions are now widely
available. In essence, we have a greater capacity to know what
we do not know. The question is will we fall back on blind
nationalism and didactic propaganda, or show the world and ourselves
our true strength, our openness? By the time you read this, these
words will have been repeated so often they'll be a stock epitaph.
Hmmm ... so why should we care about art?
Because it is the cultural and aesthetic conscience/psychosis
of our time. It is a direct reflection of our culture's capacity
to adapt to security and insecurity. Just as Cubism, the Fauves
and German expressionism expressed the tacit elements that shaped
the next 50 or so years, the art right now (maybe not gallery-
or museum-approved) reveals some clues. Overall, the worthwhile
stuff will not be as easily sorted as the work of the last 30
years (baby boomers love things to be refined and sorted).
It is only natural. Europeans have already accepted
that nothing is completely new and therefore are fine with more
frayed edges. In essence, America is growing up; I welcome it.
Maybe it's coincidence, but Portland in September had an amazing
array of very strong and engaged shows with lots of frayed edges.
Ayo's "eye-con" series shadows cultural cachet.
Shift we are not yet done. An art experience
Mark Woolley Gallery
120 NW 9th Ave.
Damali Ayo is right on, and Portland is in need
of hearing it. She puts it bluntly: "We live in a society
that relies on racism not as historical occurrence but as an everyday
foundation to our interactions and structures of all kinds."
Ayo knows full well that humans are visual creatures,
as well as the perils of not really paying attention.
Da Vinci called it the "kingdom of the eye,"
and the truth is that people, for the most part, don't actively
pay attention to what they see. They do react, however. As an
oversimplification, most people react to the easiest, most general
visual stereotypes that come into view. The familiar is usually
perceived as good and unfamiliar is usually bad. It is ingrained,
on all sides. Ayo's "eye-con" series explores these
assumptions and the icons that have gained cultural cachet without
much critical review.
In one of my favorite eye-cons, blackface entertainer
Al Jolson is a blown-up photocopy fronting the shadow of Mickey
Mouse, another blackface character. Ayo's tag notifies the unaware
that these entertainers are not black, yet made their reputations
furthering negative stereotypes. It makes me wonder when Disney
as a corporation will publicly denounce "The Song of the
South," but that would open a whole can of worms in moviemaking
history. By turning up the focus on icons like Jolson and Mickey,
Ayo shows them for what they are: not entertaining and not funny,
yet too obvious to avoid.
by Damali Ayo
Ayo's strategy is the abrupt wake-up call, but her
provocative work has a lot of levels that can be missed. Her "collars,"
which, according to the narrative, shock the wearer whenever a
racist statement is made, has connotations to corporate culture
and the overall yolk of a capitalist culture imbued with racial
value judgments. The collars can even reference those who adopt
the "blend-in-and-don't-stick-out" aesthetic of the
Similar to a caste system, the collars are arranged
with the lightest collar higher than the colored ones. Are they
all slave collars? Is it the individual or the collar that matters?
The clothes make the man, according to the old saying. Is this
homogeneity simply breeding an intolerance for certain inalienable
facts like race and personal expression? Do these facts have anything
to do with an employee's job description?
Portland is particularly adept at ignoring the race
issue. In the Southeast, Southwest and Northwest neighborhoods,
there is a conspicuous homogeneity of white folk. Here is a big-city
planning problem: the Northeast neighborhood, Portland's (ugh)
"center of diversity," is tough as hell to get to from
the Southwest because of the freeways. It's easier to cross the
Willamette River than I-84. The Northeast is walled off from the
rest of Portland, and a few puny avenues are the only real north/south
arteries other than the freeways.
Ayo catches flack for the abrasiveness of her work
and, yes, Betty Saar has done great things with Aunt Jemima. But
the fact remains that this is a worthy tradition. This is sociologically
involved; it is archaeology for the present.
If a utilitarian Etruscan artifact has become museum
art, then I argue that Ayo's work certainly tells us more about
America today than a broken plate tells us about the Etruscans
of yesterday. The problem lies in admitting the obvious: everyone
can try harder. Ayo takes it personally because it is her right;
she doesn't acquiesce to ignorance. After this show, nobody can
say Portland's galleries lack engagement.
May: cardboard, yes, cardboard.
604 NW 12th Ave.
D.E. May has it. His Reservoir District show has
a genuine, hermetic feel. There are no gimmicks and, as we chatted,
he quietly stated he doesn't do interviews. I respect that. Instead,
we simply talked shop. He loves cardboard, and so do I. His meticulous
works in the medium have a wonderful fragility.
Frankly, all art, like life itself, is fragile.
So I appreciate the candor in May's material. Still, if properly
housed, it will outlive any of us.
May's large array of small works in the back of PDX Gallery.
May suggests that cardboard is simply the perfect
solution for him. We chuckled about the innumerable curators and
"archivists" that frown on such material. I could care
less; the work itself is successful. The tiny grids, the loving
pencil traces and plum lines all suggest plans for some exquisite
project undertaken. Tiny numerals often label each area in a work.
The mature modesty imbued on each stoic work is never retiring.
Each piece faces its own mortality with dignity.
The large array of small works in the back of the
gallery speaks of May's incessancy. His work is more of this earth
than Agnes Martin's, and at least as elegant as Joseph Cornell's.
He manages the strengths of each.
To this historian, it conjures the feeling of primary
source materials and May's is an archive with variety as well
as nostalgia for the present sense.
The array in the back of the galley is an Alexandria
of ciphers, repetition, planning and reason that goes beyond the
easy commodities of installation and paintings to leave us with
a quiet, elegant record. The work seems so assured in its own
The Reservoir District, without question, is a perfect
Twenty: Elizabeth Leach Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary
through Oct. 31.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine St.
Major accomplishment: This is the Elizabeth Leach
Gallery's 20th anniversary.
The show is running an extra month so definitely
visit the space.
Twenty years is a long time to be in the gallery
business. They get taken for granted in a lot of ways. The focus
is usually on the artists, museums and sometimes, in rare instances,
know-it-all critics. That's probably because galleries often are
seen both as saviors and satans by the artists.
Yet, dealers often have noble aims and a role. They
are supposed to educate and cultivate clientele. Artists can't
educate (they often find it remedial and annoying) and museum
curators are often too tied up with institutional politics and
sheer busy-ness to help collectors find their way. This, along
with babysitting artists, is the dealer's job.
For once we get to focus on the gallery. The choice
of Greenbergian artists reaffirms serious aims, and I find this
choice telling. It makes business sense as a follow-up to the
Greenberg Collection at PAM. Also, Hofman's "Variation of
a Theme in Blue II" is far above the watered-down Ab-Ex painting
we are usually subjected to in town. In some ways it says to Portland's
collectors: "It is time to expect better."
If galleries in Portland do not do this, then the
local arts scene (my pet subject) will not set its aims higher
and we will be stuck with more of the same (re. mid- to
late-career local artists with limited ambition).
Portland is changing.
It is the only major U.S. city to so openly avoid
the New York model. Why should the art scene be a knock-off when
the city is unique? People are emigrating here specifically because
of its green issues and human scale. Leach's gallery has a perfect
location in the unique downtown away from the commonplace
cookie-cutter art spaces in the Pearl District. This is key.
The gallery certainly has one of the nicest spaces
I've ever seen and the show is very gratifying. By focusing on
world-class art, such as Hofman and Judy Pfaff's exquisite print
work, the gallery is setting the bar high for young artists. Will
they deliver? In another 20 years will this be remembered as the
gallery's highest-quality show, or will something rival or exceed
and pop: Trish Grantham's paintings stand out in the visual
Time will tell
3356 SE Belmont St.
Belmont Street is probably the best place for the
hip younger types to congregate, and Seaplane is probably the
shop most emblematic of that.
Seaplane combines art and fashion; the fare here
isn't so homogenized and it helps to have more self-confidence
and individuality than baby-boomer types can usually muster.
Trish Grantham is a good example. Her always-untitled
paintings have a cast of uneasy characters that developed over
time in her sketches. She hasn't studied art and has obviously
She prefers groups of creatures in her paintings.
They are psychologically charged but rather open-ended on specifics.
The landscapes are impassive but Grantham, a Gen-Xer like myself,
tends to address threats and risk as necessary parts of a life
This gives her paintings a charge and a pop that
brought some work for Adidas to her door. The Gen-Xers have attitude
and joie de vie. Will Portland tap this?
Grantham has been painting for three years and has
really come a long way. Her work can stand out in a shop filled
with fashion and other merchandise. It is a type of art that can
leave the white box of the gallery and still hold visual interest
even amongst the competition.
Anything can stand out in the desert but you've
really gotta have something to stand out in the dense visual jungle
of the 21st Century marketplace
and you'd better have some
teeth to back it up, too.